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David L. Darmofal

Engineering Education

My work in engineering education has focused on the enhancement of conceptual understanding, the use of project-based learning, and the integration of theory, experiment, and computation in undergraduate curriculum.

Conceptual understanding: Educational research has shown that in order for students to develop a strong conceptual framework, misconceptions that have occurred in previous learning must be addressed such that students become dissatisfied with their understanding. To do this, I follow an active learning approach developed by Prof. Eric Mazur at Harvard called peer instruction. In this approach, two or three multiple choice concept questions are given in a typical one-hour lecture. These questions are designed to include the important concepts of the subject and their common misconceptions. Using a personal handheld remote, students select an answer after a couple of minutes of independent reflection. Then, depending on the responses, students are given time to interact with each other to discuss their answers and/or a short lecture on the concept is given. The educational research shows that this type of active learning not only can improve student understanding but also can increase confidence, enjoyment of a subject, and inter-personal skills. I have found that student preparation for class is critical to the success of peer instruction; thus, I give graded homework assignments that are due prior to discussing material in class. Finally, I also use oral exams to assess conceptual understanding. . While written exams can only analyze the information that appears on paper, i.e. the final outputs of a student's thought process, an oral exam is an active assessment that can provide great insight into how students understand and relate concepts. Furthermore, practicing engineers are faced daily with the real-time need to apply rational arguments based on fundamental concepts. By using oral exams, a student's ability to construct sound conceptual arguments can be readily assessed.

Problem-based Learning (PBL): The basic premise of project- or problem-based learning is to provide students with opportunities to apply knowledge and, among other benefits, has been shown to encourage deeper learning of technical fundamentals. In my aerodynamics course (M.I.T. course number 16.100), I have implemented a semester-long team project involving the aerodynamic analysis and design of an aircraft (in the first three years, a military aircraft project developed with Lockheed Martin was used; in the last three years, a Blended Wing Body aircraft project developed with Boeing was used). The project requires students to integrate theory, experiment, and computation as they develop, validate, and apply aerodynamic models to improve the performance of a baseline design. The combination of PBL and peer instruction provides a learning environment with a rich variety of experiences to compliment a wide range of learning styles.

Integration of theory, experiment, and computation: Given that simulation is an increasingly important tool for the design of aerospace vehicles, and my research is largely in scientific computation, I have a significant interest in how scientific computation is introduced to undergraduates. In my aerodynamics course, computational fluid dynamics is applied to estimate the forces on airfoils and aircraft. The emphasis in this course is the fundamental fluid dynamics that forms the basis of the computational model, and not the computation method itself. Also, this course stresses how theory, experiment, and computation serve complimentary purposes in the design of an aircraft. In my computational methods course (M.I.T. 16.901), the emphasis is more on the computational methods though with a specific focus on application to aerospace problems. The specific course content includes the fundamentals of finite difference, finite element, and probabilistic methods


Selected Publications

D.L. Darmofal, E.M. Murman, M. Love. Re-engineering aerodynamics education. 2001 AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting, Reno, NV, January 2001, AIAA Paper No. 2001-0870.

D.L. Darmofal. Enhancing Conceptual Understanding. M.I.T. Faculty Newsletter, TeachTalk column, Volume XV, No. 2, November 2002.

D.L. Darmofal. Educating the future: the impact of pedagogical reform in aerodynamics. Computing the Future IV. Editors: D. Caughey and M. Hafez. Springer-Verlag, 2005.

D.L. Darmofal. Changing Pedagogy: What Students Say. Aero/Astro Annual, 2005.


Selected Presentations

Educating the future: the impact of pedagogical reform in aerodynamics. Computing the Future IV (honoring the contributions of David Caughey). May 2004. Cornell University.

Course development: An example from aerodynamics. CDIO Workshop. May 2004. Cambridge University.


Additional Sources

If you are interested in learning more about learning and pedagogy, especially in the area of science and engineering, the following resources have had a significant impact on my thinking about education:

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. This is a recent, comprehensive review of the educational research literature by the National Research Council. It synthesizes the dominant ideas that have emerged on how people learn and how to design effective pedagogy to encourage learning.

Prof. Richard Felder has written about many aspects of engineering education. One of the main themes of his work is that effective teaching should address a wide range of learning styles, and his series of papers on this topic (and others) are always thought-provoking.

Prof. Karl Smith is one of the pioneers of cooperative learning strategies in which interaction between students is utilized to increase deep learning, as well as many other benefits (e.g. student retention, satisfaction, communication skills, etc). His work describes a variety of approaches to incorporate cooperative learning, from informal, small groups within the classroom to formal, larger groups over the length of a semester.

Prof. Eric Mazur has developed an active-learning approach for physics he calls Peer Instruction. His work on peer instruction, and other articles on pedagogy, were the foundations of much the reform I have pursued in aerospace engineering education.

Prof. Wankat is a national leader in effective teaching of engineering and is a co-author of a very nice book on teaching engineering.

Tomorrow's Professor is a mailing-list (sent out 100 times/year) that discusses a variety of issues related to the various roles of being a professor including teaching as well as advising, tenure, etc.

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